'I feel like a failure': Dayton reopens and surveys coronavirus lockdown's toll

Ohio had one of the strictest and longest lockdowns in the country

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DAYTON, Ohio--Each morning, Nan Whaley walks her dog, takes an online yoga class and then, in her role as mayor of this city of 140,000, girds herself for a steady stream of calls from constituents asking for help navigating life during the pandemic.

There is the senior citizen who is afraid to leave her home because she is worried she will get sick and die. The restaurant owner, terrified he will go out of business. The pastor, racked with anxiety that the church he stewards won't survive this crisis.

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In between, there are meetings via Zoom to track municipal revenues in free fall and decisions about how to trim the city's already frayed social safety net.

"I do what I can," Ms. Whaley says of her responses to the constituent calls. "This is going to leave some scars."

As people across the country re-emerge from shutdowns, they are discovering the thousands of wounds left by the pandemic and the scramble to hold it at bay. This is true even in Dayton, which hasn't suffered widespread illness or death.

The potential increase in the number of suicides, fatal drug overdoses and instances of domestic abuse could be broad, deep and long-lasting, said Elinore McCance-Katz, the U.S. assistant secretary for mental health and substance use. Spikes in calls to crisis lines and predictions from the Meadows Mental Health Policy Institute in Texas of tens of thousands of suicides and drug overdoses are raising alarms and have prompted lawmakers to call for more money for mental-health screening and response.

At a recent meeting of mayors from around the world hosted by Bloomberg Philanthropies, scores of city leaders including Ms. Whaley discussed their concerns about being ill-equipped to handle increased crime, school dropouts, domestic violence and drug and alcohol abuse in the months ahead.

In Dayton, a crisis-care line that opened on April 22 to handle queries directly related to Covid-19 had received more than 1,200 calls by May 13, according to the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction. Chief complaints include stress and mental health, with other callers voicing worries about drinking too much, physical health or other issues.

The city, which had been hit hard by the opioid epidemic, has seen an 85% uptick in accidental overdoses. In March of this year, 37 people fatally overdosed in Montgomery County, up from 20 in March of 2019 and 14 in 2018, according to county records.

With no accountability to sponsors, support groups or probation officers, some recovering addicts lose their footing and relapse, said Lori Erion, a recovering alcoholic who founded Families of Addicts seven years ago.

A man walks past the closed shop called "The Music Emporium", during the coronavirus pandemic Wednesday, May 6, 2020, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/Tony Dejak) (Associated Press)

"The shutdown has killed people," she said.

Ohio had one of the strictest and longest lockdowns in the country. While the measure drew protests, the governor has also drawn praise for his approach. Ohio had fewer cases and deaths than neighboring states of Michigan and Pennsylvania.

Dayton is in Montgomery County, which as of Tuesday had just 15 reported deaths from Covid-19 and about 600 confirmed cases.

Ohio Gov. Mike DeWine, a Republican, issued a stay-at-home order on March 23. Last week, he removed most of those mandatory restrictions. The question now is what the new normal looks like.

The city is familiar with the cycle of devastation and recovery. A huge swath of jobs disappeared during the financial crisis in 2007-08 and never returned. The opiate crisis that exploded here led to hundreds of fatal drug overdoses. In one four-month stretch last year, the city was rocked by a series of deadly tornadoes, a mass shooting downtown and a KKK rally.

But, speaking of the pandemic and shutdown, Dayton Police Chief Richard Biehl said, "There is no model for this. There is nothing in our history we can compare it to."

Of particular concern to the chief is the inability of people to read one another's expressions and discern their intentions while wearing masks and trying to remain 6 feet apart. That can lead to miscommunication and possible confrontation, he says.

Pastor Rockney Carter, who leads the 150-year-old Zion Baptist Church, is coming to terms with the possibility that his church won't survive the pandemic. To preach to his congregation he has moved services online and set up a way for his congregants to tithe through the internet. The church has little money in the bank and can't survive indefinitely if the community remains at home, he said.

"We have to prepare for the stark reality that we may not come back from this," he said. "I guarantee you a number of people might not ever come back to Zion Baptist or to go to any church at all. I believe some people won't come out of their house again."

One recent Wednesday morning at the city's only food bank, cars waited bumper-to-bumper in a line that stretched more than 2 miles. The cars, including a few late-model Mercedes and Acuras, inched along until each entered a bay where soldiers in fatigues hefted 10-pound sacks of red potatoes and 35-pound cardboard boxes of canned soups and pasta into open trunks while drivers sat at the wheel, mostly staring straight ahead. Gallon jugs of apple cider and crates of Ensure rounded out the delivery.

Bridgett Hatton, a 50-year-old nurse, cancer patient and single mother of two, waited in line in a red SUV. At home, her cupboards were bare, she said. It was her first trip to a food bank.

"I have worked since I was 17 years old. I never, ever, ever thought I would be here," she said, as she began to cry. "I feel like a failure, like I can't even take care of my kids. I'm sorry. I'm sorry."

Ms. Hatton said her illness forced her to stop working about the same time as the pandemic came. Her daughter plans to start at the University of Cincinnati in September. "I planned for this," she said. "Now I'm dipping into their college funds just to be able to survive day to day."

Jennille Love-Allen, the student-services coordinator at the Trotwood-Madison City Schools, which is next to Dayton, said one sophomore didn't log on for any classes or assignments. Five or six employees, including social workers, called and wrote emails to him trying to get him re-engaged, Ms. Love-Allen said.

Finally, the teen emailed back. He had received all the messages, but had decided to drop out of school, and didn't want anyone to write to him again. "I'm done," she said he wrote. "I didn't sign up to go to school like this."

"That broke my heart," Ms. Love-Allen said. "That was a big one, for a student to clearly articulate, 'I'm done.'"

Mayor Whaley spends a lot of her time trying to encourage people in Dayton to stay safe. One recent afternoon she sat with the city's chief medical officer for public health in her office in city hall. On the table in between them was a plastic castle with a little gate used to illustrate how relaxing the shutdown and letting people back outside would increase the risk of spread. The city broadcast the conversation on Facebook.

At her most optimistic, Ms. Whaley, a Democrat, sees the pandemic laying the groundwork for a strengthened social safety net which would include universal health care and day care to help low-wage workers now considered essential employees.

In less hopeful moments, she considers the stiff backlash to those ideas and the people who seem primed to fight them every step of the way.

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In Michigan, recent rallies to reopen the economy have drawn armed protesters to the state legislature, Chief Biehl said.

"The guns are there to intimidate," he said. "It concerns me."

In late April, a man walked onto a residential street allegedly carrying an AK-47-style semi automatic weapon yelling about the virus, China and drones, and threatening to shoot someone. The man, who allegedly refused to stop advancing or put down his gun, was ultimately shot and wounded by Dayton police.

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The department's investigation found the man may have been fixated on the virus, its origin and the effect it had on his livelihood.

"What does this look like," the chief asked, "when we get past this acute phase?"